Explanations vs. Excuses

At some point in your life, things will go wrong. This is a fact as indisputable as death or taxes or breathing; things are happen to you that you wish wouldn't have happened. And when these things happen, more often than not, there will be someone in a position above you wanting to know exactly why they happened. In other words they’ll be looking for an explanation. However, they’ll absolutely loathe getting an excuse. It’s a distinction that’s ubiquitous: explanations are encouraged. Excuses are to be avoided at all costs.

At firth, though, this distinction seems somewhat arbitrary. After all, when someone is asking for an explanation, they’re asking you to tell them the set of circumstances that caused an event. And isn’t that exactly what an excuse is? Dictionaries won't help us distinguish between the two either: According to Merriam-Webster, to excuse is to “attempt to lessen blame; seek to defend or justify, while to explain is to "account for an action or event by giving a reason as justification." However, despite their remarkable similarity in definition, we perceive these two things as very different, and think about them in very different terms. Why is this?

The best way to come to grips with this difference it to think about blame. When I explain why I did something, I’m still taking ownership of doing that thing. I’m saying “here are the reason that I did what I did, but at the end of the day it was still a thing that I did, and I understand that and take responsibility for that." An excuse, on the other hand, is considered by most people an attempt to shift blame away from oneself. When I make excuses, what I’m saying is “don’t blame me, I can’t be help responsible for this action because of these factors.” Explanations are a way of owning our own actions, while excuses are a way of trying to run from them.

This difference, subtle as it may be, has huge meaning. After all, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions is considered by most to be a sign of integrity, a quality that multiple studies have found is among those most valued in potential employees by employers. Furthermore, explaining our mistakes often helps us come to understand exactly why we made them, an understanding that can keep us from making those mistakes in the future. Choosing to take ownership of our mistakes instead of dismissing them can have far-reaching positive effects on our lives as a whole. In other words, there will be times when things go wrong in your life, and sometimes these mishaps will be your fault. Acknowledging these mistakes you make, as hard as it is sometimes, is the best way to make sure that you don't make more of them.